Universities and Emergencies: scaling up responses

Universities are increasingly caught up in violent conflicts. This was the focus of a symposium at last week’s Going Global conference in London. The panel that presented on “Higher Education in Emergency Environments” covered specific crises in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, but with far wider implications. Appropriately so: last year the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack reported that between 2009 and 2012 armed non-state groups, state military and security forces, as well as armed criminal groups, have attacked thousands of schoolchildren, university students, teachers, academics and education establishments in at least 70 countries. Such attacks are escalating. Helena Barroco, Coordinator for the Global Platform for Syrian Students, described current levels of violence and displacement as the worst humanitarian crisis in more than half a century.

Extensive and growing numbers of students and academics are in exile. Precise numbers are unknown, but the extent of the current crisis in Syria alone provides an indication. When the war began in 2011, Syria had a population of about 23 million with 26% of Syrian men and women continuing into post-compulsory education. By the end of 2014 an estimated 3.8 million had fled the country and a further 7.6 million people were internally displaced as a direct result of violence. Of those remaining in Syria more than 12 million were in need of humanitarian assistance. Tens of thousands of academics, students and potential students are caught up in this maelstrom.

The Going Global symposium showed that well-established responses to such crises can no longer match the scale of need. Professor Osman Babury, Deputy Minister for Academic Affairs for Afghanistan, argued for international protocols and a global fund to assist universities caught up in such violence. But the problem – as the panel emphasized – is that such calls for support are in competition for other essential humanitarian aid; medicine and health provision, food security, housing, basic education. It is unlikely that the needs of universities would win out in such a prioritization; it is also unlikely that universities across the world would donate at sufficient levels.

Given the scale of this problem, there is a clear need for a bridge that provides continuity in learning opportunities in situations where universities are prevented from functioning by major emergencies. This bridge may be required in-country, in situations like that faced by universities in Gaza after the 2014 Israeli strikes. It may also be required by students in exile, such as those in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, or who have taken refuge in Turkey. For some, such a bridge will help them secure places, and funding, at universities out of their home countries. For others, continuity in learning will help in finding employment. For those universities temporarily prevented from operating because of damage to their infrastructure, providing continuity in learning for their students will assist them in regaining full functionality.

The opportunity for addressing this objective will be grounded in the remarkable advances that have been made in digital technologies over the past few years. The convergence of widely available bandwidth, huge digital storage capacity at plummeting unit costs and affordable, intelligent mobile devices is enabling disruptive innovations in most areas of contemporary life, including education.

In themselves, though, digital solutions will not be adequate. While there are evident exceptions, the pattern that has emerged from MOOCs is that few complete and many – often most – participants are already graduate professionals, with strong resource and support structures. Those caught up in violent emergencies will not have such advantages and will want and need strong and immediate peer support to get what they need.

In addition, many will have experienced the intense and personalized effects of warfare. Professor Babury puts the level of mental health problems among students in Afghanistan at above 40%. Far higher numbers experience violent trauma. For example, the Bourj el-Barajneh camp near Beirut now houses some 30 000 refugees in an area of about 1.5 square kilometres. The United Nations estimates that 90% have experienced violent trauma.

Last week’s discussion in London was part of a continuing debate about what to do about such emergencies. Next year’s Going Global will be in Cape Town. By then, we need to have rethought first principles, reconciling the long and honourable assistance that universities have given to students and scholars at risk with the scale and ferocity of today’s crises.


British Council Going Global 2015. “Higher Education in Emergency Environments”. http://www.britishcouncil.org/going-global/programme/conference-sessions/higher-education-emergency-environments

Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack, 2014. Education Under Attack. http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/eua_2014_full_0.pdf

OCHA 2013. “Lebanon: Life for Palestinian refugees in Bourj el-Barajneh”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1 July 2013: http://www.unocha.org/top-stories/all-stories/lebanon-life-palestinian-refugees-bourj-el-barajneh

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